11 Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. There's some disagreement about when he was actually born.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. He was at the center of a musical dynasty.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. He took a musical pilgrimage that puts every road trip to Woodstock to shame.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. He brawled with his students.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. He spent 30 days in jail for quitting his job.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. The Brandenburg Concertos were a failed job application.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. He wrote an amazing coffee jingle.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. If Bach challenged you to a keyboard duel, you were guaranteed to be embarrassed.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. Some of his music may have been composed to help with insomnia.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. A botched eye surgery blinded him.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. Nobody is 100 percent confident that Bach is buried in his grave.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

25 Most Popular Songs to Clean the House To, According to Spotify

Sergey Nazarov, iStock via Getty Images
Sergey Nazarov, iStock via Getty Images

Doing the dishes is a lot less grueling when you pretend you're in a Whitney Houston video. Spotify users around the world have discovered the power of music to make chores more fun, as evidenced by hundreds of playlists with words like housework, cleaning, and chores in the title. Before diving into your next home project, queue up these 25 popular songs for cleaning.

To compile the list below, the price comparison site Compare the Market looked at 50,000 songs from 348 Spotify playlists with names referencing housework. The most common song in this category is "Señorita" by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, which appears on 44 of the playlists surveyed. It's followed by "Mr. Brightside" by The Killers in the second slot and "bad guy" by Billie Eilish in third.

The top 25 cleaning songs include a lot of recent hits, but some older tunes are also represented. Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," and Bon Jovi's "Livin' On A Prayer" have been inspiring listeners to pick up their brooms for decades.

You can read the full list below before updating your own cleaning playlist.

  1. Señorita // Shawn Mendes (Featuring Camila Cabello)
  1. Mr. Brightside // The Killers
  1. bad guy // Billie Eilish
  1. Uptown Funk // Mark Ronson
  1. Bohemian Rhapsody // Queen
  1. I Wanna Dance With Somebody // Whitney Houston
  1. Truth Hurts // Lizzo
  1. I Don’t Care // Ed Sheeran (With Justin Bieber)
  1. Shape of You // Ed Sheeran
  1. Someone You Loved // Lewis Capaldi
  1. Old Town Road // Lil Nas X (Featuring Billy Ray Cyrus)
  1. Sunflower // Post Malone
  1. Don't Stop Believin' // Journey
  1. Shake It Off // Taylor Swift
  1. Believer // Imagine Dragons
  1. Wake Me Up // Avicii
  1. Despacito // Luis Fonsi
  1. High Hopes // Panic! At The Disco
  1. Sweet but Psycho // Ava Max
  1. Sweet Home Alabama // Lynyrd Skynyrd
  1. Party In The U.S.A. // Miley Cyrus
  1. Shut Up and Dance // WALK THE MOON
  1. Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) // Beyoncé
  1. Livin' On A Prayer // Bon Jovi
  1. Billie Jean // Michael Jackson

Rare, Early Portraits of Jim Morrison and The Doors Are Headed to Auction

Jim Morrison of The Doors photographed in 1968.
Jim Morrison of The Doors photographed in 1968.
Michael Montfort, Swann Auction Galleries

The Doors left a bluesy mark on rock ’n’ roll music that lasted long after the tragic death of frontman Jim Morrison at age 27. But because the band only existed for about six years—in a pre-smartphone era, no less—there isn’t a ton of behind-the-scenes content to tell the story of Morrison’s bright, albeit brief, career.

Come February 25, nine rare photos of Morrison from The Doors’ first European tour in 1968 will end up in the hands of one fortunate fan. Swann Auction Galleries is selling them as part of their “Classic and Contemporary Photographs” auction, which also includes portraits of early Hollywood stars like Joan Crawford, John Barrymore, and Veronica Lake.

The black and white photographs of Morrison were taken by German-born photojournalist Michael Montfort when the band performed in Frankfurt, Germany that September, and they manage to capture the strangely hazy, somewhat intense nature of the legendary lead singer. In one, Morrison looks right into the camera while leaning against a church pulpit; in another, he lies on the stage clutching the microphone with his back turned to the audience; in yet another, a sweat-drenched Morrison holds a leather jacket in one hand and makes a peace sign with the other.

jim morrison of the doors lying onstage
The Doors' Jim Morrison takes a break onstage during a Frankfurt concert in September 1968.
Michael Montfort, Swann Auction Galleries

The Doors played early hits like “Light My Fire” and “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” to raucous, devoted crowds across Europe, but the tour wasn’t without its calamities, due largely to Morrison’s substance abuse. After leaving Frankfurt, the band stopped to perform a show in Amsterdam, where a drug-addled Morrison collapsed on stage during Jefferson Airplane’s opening set. He was immediately taken to a hospital, and keyboard player Ray Manzarek stepped in as lead singer that night. Morrison finished the tour, but his drug addiction would continue to plague him until he died of a (suspected) overdose in Paris in 1971.

jim morrison the doors backstage photo
A messy-haired Morrison flashes a peace sign in 1968.
Michael Montfort, Swann Auction Galleries

The collection of nine photos is expected to fetch between $1500 and $2500, and you can place a bid here.

[h/t Swann Auction Galleries]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER